Thursday, February 02, 2006

Judging By the Cover: Electronics Publishing

Cardboard and plastic surround our ethereal digits

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, July 22, 1998 -- When it comes to [Image]
consumer electronics, creative packaging design
is not the first thing that comes to mind -- many items
are sold in anonymous brown cardboard boxes with cryptic
model numbers printed on the side [barring a few
exceptions such as accessories and
home-theaters-in-a-box, which often come in highly
communicative color packaging -- Ed.]. While the
equipment itself isn't dressed in anything fancy, where
software media are concerned (i.e. discs, cartridges,
cassettes), packaging becomes a critical element of the
total design concept.

In the case of music CDs, most of the package is
inseparable from the product, since the jewel box stays
with the CD throughout its life. Mesmerizing as the CD
is, with its iridescent reflective surface and the
satisfying snap-fit of the disc into its case,
design-wise it went through a rocky introduction. In the
shift from LPs to CDs both artists and record labels have
had to contend with the loss of space -- the CD is a
fraction of the size of a 12-inch LP -- on which to
reinforce an identity and market a product. In many cases
the CD graphics were just a scaled-down version of the LP
jacket, and the design didn't always translate well to
the smaller space. Beyond the cover, lyric sheets and
liner notes now had to fit into this miniature package,
leaving everyone involved in the creative process of
package design with a much smaller canvas.

At the same time, store owners suddenly needed to
reconfigure shelving spaces to fit the new format, and
consumers had to adjust to the idea of paying more for a
physically smaller object (though often one with extra
tracks and longer running time). The quick-fix to the
sizing quandary was the "long box" which was just as tall
as an LP jacket, but no wider than the CD inside it.
Though clearly a waste of material, it offered more room
for eye-catching graphics, filled the psychological gap
for consumers and made it easier for store owners to
adapt LP shelving for CDs.

Consumers' guilt got the best of us when we became aware
of the overwhelming waste of cardboard and plastic that
went into making a 12-inch long box to house a little CD.
Some innovative packaging designers created a long box
that could fold up into a small cardboard jewel case, but
by '92 major recording companies stopped using long
boxes. They opted instead for the kind of packaging we
have today, with jewel boxes encased in protective
plastic wrapping (still a pain in the neck to open, but
not nearly as annoying as having to scrunch up those
cardboard or stiff plastic boxes).

While the CD has nestled into a comfortable strategy for
packaging, designers will be left with greater challenges
when dealing with new formats. In a sense, digital media,
as far as the physical product is concerned, will be all
packaging. As the physical nature of the medium shrinks
or disappears, the package will be all that's left to
give a sense of the presence of the contents. Just think
of the pride people take in large record collections,
savoring the experience physically cataloguing each item.
What happens when all that's left is software that can be
simply downloaded?

Today, software and CD-ROMs are still sold in extremely
wasteful packages, with oversized boxes that are mostly
full of empty space, like the joke birthday gift that's a
tiny present wrapped in an enormous box. Pretty soon both
designers and consumers may have to become more
comfortable with the concept of "virtual packaging" --
that is, icons or screen images that represent what the
product is.

While the idea of virtual packaging is a little worrisome
to someone like me who revels in the joy of the physical
object, the overall concept is intriguing, and the
opportunity for using moving images and 3D graphics to
identify a product may lead to more creative product
identities.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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